John Wooden's America

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Let's talk for a bit about John Wooden.

Some people are surprised and even a little confused by all the public emotion surrounding his death.

After all, he was just a basketball coach, wasn't he?

He retired the same year that the Vietnam War ended. That's 35 years ago, another era.

So what is it about John Wooden that interrupted regular programming on TV, that stopped the presses at the Los Angeles Times?

His death made old men and young women cry.

It's not just that he was a college basketball coach who won ten national titles and helped invent the style that Kobe and LeBron play today.

Before Sunday night's game between the Lakers and Celtics, the Boston coach Doc Rivers called Wooden the best basketball coach ever.

Some have even said Wooden was the best coach…in any sport.

Those are nice words to have said about you. But they still don't explain the special affection Americans held for John Wooden. Especially Angelenos, who saw him up close for so long.

People loved him because, in complicated and often ugly times, he represented goodness and fair play. The best parts of the American spirit, as if they were embodied in your aging father or grandfather.

Wooden's America wasn't angry or polarized. There was a right way, and it was attainable.

He simplified life's challenges and lessons into concise values that could be understood put to use.

"Never mistake activity for achievement."

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

"It isn't what you do, but how you do it."

Even as he grew weaker and more dependent on the help of others, he kept a sense of humor. He kept friends until the end, and who wouldn't want to grow old that way.

Before last night's game, two of his UCLA stars stepped on the floor of Staples Center to speak for the millions.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar had rushed back from Europe to visit Coach Wooden one last time, in the hospital.

In his life, Wooden was more than a coach. Much more. He was a teacher, about living the right way and being an honorable man.

Kareem said he'll always be grateful that he got to be one of Coach Wooden's students.

Bill Walton played for Wooden at the height of campus protests over the Vietnam War. He got arrested for laying down on Wilshire Boulevard, and once asked the coach to sign a letter calling on President Nixon to resign.

They disagreed over that and many other things. But Walton's home in San Diego is a shrine to John Wooden.

He urged the Staples Center crowd to carry on the coach's ideals of peace, love, excellence, education and service.

After Wooden died Friday evening, students began to congregate outside UCLA's hospital. A few dozen at first, then more.

By the time the TV cameras switched on for the 8 o'clock news, something like five hundred students stood on the sidewalk.

Some did the UCLA cheer that Bruins call the eight-clap. Some held candles, silently.

They were there to honor an elder, and a life well lived.

To comment on this column, or to talk about John Wooden, go to

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: John Wooden addresses the audience at the unveiling of his plaque at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Court of Honor, May 20, 2008